Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 10/24/05 w/ Additional Edits & Revisions.
Based on the teen novel by the late Chris Fuhrman, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys is about two comic-book fanatics in the 1970s with desires to create their own comic while dealing with their authoritive nun and growing up while planning a huge prank. Adapted into a script by Michael Petroni and Jeff Stockwell with Jodie Foster serving as a producer for the directorial debut of British music video director Peter Care. The movie is a part comic-book film with animation sequences from Spawn creator Todd McFarlane and live action sequences that blurs the realities and fantasy for the young boys. Starring Keiran Culkin, Jena Malone, Emile Hirsch, Vincent D'Onofrio, and Jodie Foster. The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys is a whimsical, coming-of-age story that is filled with a lot of imagination.
Tim Sullivan (Kieran Culkin) and Francis Doyle (Emile Hirsch) are two teenage Catholic schoolboys who likes to cause trouble in their Southern environment. While they also serve as altar boys for Father Casey (Vincent D'Onofrio), they're also trying to create a comic book with their friends Wade (Jake Richardson) and Joey (Tyler Long) as Tim is the editor and Francis is the creative force. Francis meanwhile, falls for Margie Flynn (Jena Malone) as the two become attracted to each other. Though the boys had to deal with the strict authority of the one-legged nun Sister Assumpta (Jodie Foster), Tim and Francis always find a way to deal with her while she becomes the inspiration for their comic antagonist in Nunzilla.
The comic called Atomic Trinity has Tim modeled as MuscleMan, Francis as Brakken, Wade as Captain Asskicker, and Joey as Major Screw while Francis created another character in Sorcerella modeled after Margie for a storyline about regaining a pearl from Nunzilla to restore order. During a trip to the zoo, Tim gets an idea about a prank he wants to do on Sister Assumpta involving a cougar he sees at the zoo. Yet, the boys decides to do a prank that involves them stealing a school statue that leaves Sister Assumpta angry. Francis' relationship with Margie begins to blossom though Margie reveals an unsettling secret that mentions her older brother Donny (Arthur Bridgers) whom Francis knows. Francis reluctantly tells Tim as he asks him to keep it a secret as the two and Margie go to the zoo so that Tim can try and capture the cougar that doesn't go well.
With Tim still wanting to make plans for the prank, Tim is suddenly shaken by an encounter with a wounded dog during a marijuana binge as Francis notices something odd about Tim's behavior. Things eventually unravel as Tim accidentally spills the secret to Donny during P.E. as Francis' relationship with Margie starts to fall apart due to more things unveiled. The two boys get expelled over what Sister Assumpta found though Father Casey thinks that what they're doing isn't really wrong. Tim and Francis decide to go ahead with their prank as Wade and Joey join them where the plan suddenly goes wrong leaving Francis haunted by everything he's gone through.
While the idea of fantasy and reality is mixed very well, for a massive audience, the approach might be confusing and uneven. Particularly since the reality and the live-action sequences of the film dominate a large part of the film more. It's in the animated sequences that comes into the film every once in a while that really serves as Francis' fantasy and ideas for his comic. While some might find the approach to the script and Peter Care's direction to be handled very well. Some though will find it to be uneven to the point of where it comes from in Francis' mind. Still, the film carries a lot of strong moments, notably the scene where Tim and Francis find the wounded dog that would foreshadow in what's to come in the film's end.
Still, the real theme of the story is these young people growing up and it's about how love can disrupt things whether it's Francis' friendship with Tim or his romance with Margie. Both are dysfunctional yet there's so much to come afterwards, especially for Francis in the end since the story really revolves around him. The subplot about Margie and her relationship with her brother is very interesting since it forces Francis to realize that nothing is as it seems. It's a story about growing up and it's handle very wonderfully by Peter Care by presenting the performances in a natural, realistic way.
Helping Care in capturing the visual style of the South is production designer Gideon Ponte and art director Geoffrey S. Grimsman who help capture the suburban, urban decay area of the south. The costume design of Marie France is very realistic from the school clothing to the 70s casual clothing the kids wear in the film. While editor Chris Peppe does a nice job in editing the animation sequences and live-action scenes into the film in its 105-minute pacing. The real star in terms of capturing the visual style of the film is Care's longtime cinematographer Lance Acord.
Using the same photography, hand-held style for such later works like Spike Jonze's Adaptation and his greatest work in Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation, Acord uses sunlight and natural coloring for many of the film's exterior scenery while in the interiors, brings an atmospheric tone to the film in its school sequences and the attic room Margie lives with her constellation light-map. For the film's score, there's some nice orchestral pieces in the comic book sequences by Marco Beltrami but a lot of the music is dominated by Queens of the Stone Age leader Josh Hommes who helps capture the 1970s with his gritty, raw metal guitar sound as well as some acoustic music to bring the film its innocence.
The film's small cast is wonderfully used, especially Arthur Bridgers as Donny and Scott Simpson as the stoner/comic book clerk. Jake Richardson and Tyler Long are excellent in their respective roles as Wade and Joey, who both bring an extra edge to the friendship of Tim and Francis while as a gang, they all have something different to bring to the table as both young actors do excellent work. While Vincent D'Onofrio's character is small, every scene he's in has D'Onofrio being very laid back and more of a mentor as opposed to be a figure of authority, especially in a scene with Francis about sin while he smokes a cigarette. Jodie Foster gives a wonderful performance as the strict Sister Assumpta while in her alter-ego Nunzilla, she brings a lot of humor and evilness to that character. Foster as the nun is more restrained yet despite her strictness and hold on authority, she gives the character a sense of morals as Foster brings another wonderful performance.
Jena Malone gives an amazing performance as the troubled yet sweet ingenue Margie Flynn. While she brings a similar, graceful quality that a young Diane Lane had in the early 80s, Malone brings more grit and dysfunctions to her character while making her very complex in the development of the story. Malone has wonderful chemistry with Hirsch while bringing a lot of brilliance to every moment she's in. Kieran Culkin is the film's comic relief and he really gives the best performance of the movie with every scheme he's concocting and always have an upbeat, trouble-making where it really is a disguise for everything he's surrounded by. Especially in the scene with the wounded dog as Culkin brings a lot more depth to his character while maintaining a wonderful tension and chemistry with Hirsch. Emile Hirsch is wonderful as the film's leading protagonist Francis. Hirsch brings an innocence to his role as a dreamer who wants something more in his life while dealing with newfound love and his friendship with Tim. Hirsch is really the film's emotional center and core as he gives a great performance.
While it's not for everyone, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys is still a wonderfully imaginative debut from director Peter Care. With a great cast led by Kieran Culkin, Jena Malone, and Emile Hirsch along with the support of Jodie Foster and Vincent D'Onofrio, the film's got a lot going for. Particularly in Josh Homme's rock score and the lush cinematography of Lance Acord. Fans whose aware of Peter Care's video work for R.E.M. will certainly find those same elements. The film's got a lot for comic book fans as well thanks to the animation work of Todd McFarlane. For anyone who loves comics with a bit of humor and development, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys is the film to see.
(C) thevoid99 2011